Municipal Elections: An Expert's View
University of Tartu political scientist Rein Toomla is a top authority - as well as the press's most quoted expert - on all matters related to Estonian politics. ERR News caught up with him to get his take on the upcoming municipal elections and the impact they could have.
Local elections certainly don't get the attention that general elections do. How much do local elections really matter in the wider scheme of Estonian politics?
It is no surprise that local elections are overshadowed by parliamentary elections - that is the case all over the world. But local elections are gathering more importance in Estonia, mainly due to the fact that political parties have increased their reach. When all parties are able to run for all local offices, then we can say that local elections are very important for parties.
Is it an important factor that local councils usually participate in deciding who becomes president?
That's fairly important. The problem is that if the President is not elected in Parliament, then the second round takes place in an electoral body [similar to Electoral College in US – ed.], which is formed 70 percent from local municipality representatives. The current local elections name the potential electoral body members.
What do the outcomes mean for parties on a national level? Is it important to win locally to boost a party's standing nationally?
[The results] have an important, but not an absolute meaning. People without an Estonian or EU citizenship may also vote in local elections in Estonia, but they make up only about 16 percent of the voters. As these people may not participate at the Parliamentary elections - and those elections are more highly valued by political parties - then those parties who do badly in local elections can always say that in parliamentary elections, with a different constituency, they will fare better and that is more important. The number of people with Estonian citizenship is growing and local election results will [one day] be comparable to parliamentary election results.
The Tallinn election seems to be a special case, since the Center Party, in opposition nationally, ruling the city almost without interruption since 2001, and has been using it as a base for promoting their policies on a national level. What would it mean if they didn't win a majority? What chances to you give for seeing Savisaar ousted?
Losing an office after many years in power would affect any party. If that fate befalls the Center Party in Tallinn, then they should review their actions and beliefs, and try to find possible reasons for the defeat. The Center Party is a large and politically experienced party and such a loss would not lead to a collapse. But it may lose hesitating supporters, who until now had elected them as the party in power. Such a loss may also mean a decrease in donation revenues.
The use of e-voting appears to be increasing from election to election. What effect, if any, do you see this having on the outcome?
According to studies, we can say that e-voting results are not tilted toward any particular party. The results do show, for example that the Reform Party is popular with e-voters, but that cannot be attributed to e-voting but that younger people are more prone to vote for the Reform Party and the younger generation uses the Internet more, and thus participate more actively in e-elections.
How do you compare this municipal elections to those of the recent past? Is it nastier, nicer, more interesting, less interesting or about the same?
On the whole there are no great differences. On a regional level a few developments can be found, for example in Tallinn campaigning appears to be more aggressive this time.
Are there any other interesting nuances of the 2013 races?
The most intriguing question nationwide is probably the popularity of election coalitions. The credibility of parties is not very high right now, which makes it interesting how many votes non-party election coalitions managed to gather. How will their stand against nationwide politics manifest itself? In the 2009 local elections, election coalitions won 27 percent of all votes.
Given what seems to have been a widespread growth of dissatisfaction with party politics last year, do you think that election coalitions will fare better this time around?
I believe that the popularity of election coalitions will not soar. On the contrary, I would predict a drop in support. Why? Political parties have expanded - the number of municipalities where only one or two parties competing has continued to decline. That also puts pressure on those election coalitions that have dominated in their municipalities.
Turnout could drop, but at the last elections it surpassed expectations, reaching 61 percent. The norm is around 55 percent. If this year's figure falls below the norm, then we can look at the political scandals for an explanation.
Not all parties run in all elections. Do you think some have made strategic mistakes in that regard?
Forsaking certain local elections is certainly a mistake. The Reform Party has, in not running in mainly Russian-speaking Ida-Viru County towns, admitted that it has failed to integrate the Russian-speaking community into Estonian politics. This may have an indirect influence on Russian-speaking voters elsewhere, in Tallinn for example.
Expats from other EU countries are beginning to realize they have a right to vote in local elections. Do you see that demographic as having any influence at all this time, or do you think they could become a force in the future?
Currently, no. The proportion of (other) EU citizens of the constituency is diminutive and local candidates are more known to local voters.
Interview compiled and translated by Steve Roman and Juhan-Markus Laats.